Cal Schmidt shakes his head when he thinks about how fast the region's wine industry has grown.
When the self-taught winemaker bought land in the Applegate Valley 12 years ago, there were only a handful of wineries. The next year, when he planted cabernet, syrah and merlot grapes, there was only one real tasting room, at Valley View Winery.
Tonight, 182 different wines made from grapes grown in the southern part of the state will be celebrated at the Southern Oregon World of Wine Festival's Grand Tasting.
At the event, in which 700 people will gather in a tent the size of two baseball fields on the Bigham Knoll campus in Jacksonville, Schmidt, who owns Schmidt Family Vineyards, will receive special honors for producing two of the competition's three Best of Show winners.
He will also receive praise for launching WOW 10 years ago with Joe Ginet of Plaisance Ranch in Williams and Lee Mankin of Carpenter Hill Vineyard in Medford.
Back then, the trio dreamed up the idea of having a summer party to promote grapes from the state's lesser-known region. They financed it with personal credit cards, their wives made the food, and they invited all the wine producers they knew.
At tonight's catered event, those wine producers and many others will be toasted for the rising quality of the region's wines and for inventing an industry here that seems to have a prosperous future, if it doesn't get too crowded.
Schmidt Family Vineyards in Grants Pass has grown from producing 350 cases of wine a year in 2004 to 3,500 cases last year. All but about 70 cases are sold directly to customers visiting the Craftsman-style tasting room Schmidt designed in 2006 on the former cattle ranch that is now on the popular Applegate Wine Trail.
Schmidt's grapes benefit from a growing season of dry, hot days and cool nights, as do wine neighbors Serra Vineyard, Rosella's Vineyard, Soloro Vineyards, Troon Vineyard and Wooldridge Creek Winery.
Chris Martin, who owns Troon and is president of the Southern Oregon Winery Association, says successful business people such as Schmidt sometimes take the easy route to owning a label.
"He could have bought his way into the wine business and then paid others to do the work, but Cal does it all," says Martin. "He has established a great business. It's admirable that without a winemaking or grape-growing background he has done so well."
Schmidt's winery is one of two businesses he created in a city known more for water sports.
In 1992, Schmidt moved his cabinet-making business from Sonoma County, Calif., to Grants Pass. Today, Northwestern Design sells $8 million in cabinetry, cases and other millwork to libraries, hospitals, schools, courthouses and offices.
Two years ago, Schmidt was asked to produce the woodwork for the Robert Mondavi Institute of Food & Wine Science building on the U.C. Davis campus, a small intersection of his two businesses.
His son, Jim Schmidt, 50, runs the cabinet company, which has 50 employees. His daughter, Rene Brons, 48, manages the tasting room and assists him with the winemaking.
All eight grandchildren work in one of the businesses. Grandson Duncan Brons, 26, is the assistant winemaker, and his wife, Natasha, 26, works in the tasting room, selling $39 bottles of 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and $34 bottles of 2008 Syrah, both gold medal winners in the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition, which had more than 5,000 entries.
Grandson Jesse Brons, 19, who will join the Marines in the fall, has helped his brother Duncan build the 1,440-square-foot tasting room, which is open every day except Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter. Easter is typically a busy day for tasting rooms, but not this one.
"Those are family holidays," says Cal Schmidt.
Granddaughter Heather Carlino, 25, is the bookkeeper and manages the wine club, which has 900 members, one of the largest wine clubs in the area. Great-grandchildren work in the vineyard as their parents have since the first planting in 2001.
"Right now we have two generations making wine and maybe we will be a three-generation winemaking family," says Schmidt.
Schmidt's wife of 49 years, Judy, 68, is a Master Gardener who has converted four acres of the property into settings straight from van Gogh paintings. A horse-drawn carriage offers visitors views of trees, ponds and sunflower fields. Her herb and vegetable gardens supply ingredients for caprese salad, flatbread-pizza toppings and sauces offered on the tasting-room menu.
"I never expected to be this involved in the business," says daughter Rene Brons, who clarifies that although family members have business titles, everyone pitches in as needed on the bottling line, harvesting and manning the tasting room.
She says that although she has known since she was a child that her dad wanted to grow grapes and make wine, no one knew it would become this big.
"I am very proud of him," she says.
This success is something that the Kansas farm-boy-turned-businessman couldn't have planned on.
Cal Schmidt took enology classes at U.C. Davis, and in 2008 he took over as winemaker. Last year, he won seven medals in the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition.
This year, the three out-of-state judges in the WOW blind tasting awarded him top honors for two Spanish varietals — tempranillo and albarino — that grow well in Oregon's so-called sunbelt. Another Applegate winemaker, Herb Quady, won a Best of Show for his 2012 Quady North Rose.
Schmidt's original plan was to grow grapes, but he soon realized that "the artistry and monetary value is more in the wine than grapes."
He added zinfandel, cab franc and malbec, and later viognier, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and albarino.
This year, he planted tempranillo to his existing 30 acres of vineyards. Grapes used in this year's WOW Best of Show winner, Schmidt Family Vineyards' 2009 Tempranillo, were grown at Dana Campbell Vineyards in Ashland. His other Best of Show, a 2011 Albarino, was made from estate-grown grapes.
"It was a very nice surprise to win a medal, and not just one but two," Schmidt said Thursday. "That will knock your socks off. It's a high honor and it shows that we can grow Spanish varietals well here."
Then he turned to congratulate his family.
"We are all hard workers with high standards," he said. "We do what it takes to get the job done. I've been very blessed."
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org